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Toyota's Troubles Hold Lessons for Other EV-Makers

Toyota's recent problems have shown that even a mighty and seemingly invulnerable brand can be brought to its knees in an instant.

But although the automaker's image is tarnished, Toyota will eventually recover. Consumer confidence will likely return and the company's PR nightmare will fade as the news cycle moves on.

In the meantime, there is much to learn from Toyota's grief. As automakers set out to release innovative vehicles, they will do well to remember the past few weeks.

With consumer perception such a powerful force, stakeholders in the electric vehicle industry know they can ill afford such a crisis -- one small issue could significantly undermine the future. So automakers are exercising caution by releasing EVs in small numbers and in targeted cities. Likewise, a host of other shareholders are covering every necessary base in advance of their arrival.

Project Get Ready, an initiative created by Rocky Mountain Institute, has assembled a roster of partners who are working to create EV-ready cities across the country. Acting as an arena where stakeholders can share information with one another, the group consists of major automakers, charging station manufacturers, city leaders and, most recently, a safety certification organization.

Safety First

One of Project Get Ready's new technical advisers, Underwriters Laboratories, is standardizing a wide array of EV-related equipment. Cables, cords, plugs, receptacles and inverters-there's a standard for each. And UL is continuing to receive a flood of certification applications as electric vehicle supply equipment advances at a rapid pace.

According to Joe Bablo, principal engineer for UL's Automotive Equipment and Associated Technologies department, the organization ensures product safety in three areas: electric shock, physical injury and fire hazard. "The UL mark will go a long way with electrical inspectors," Bablo says.

From the charging source (either an outlet or charging station) to the car, each component is probed for accessibility to wires and other harmful elements. This will prove important as electric vehicles hit the roads. Electrical inspectors and mechanics will likely require such a certification as they start to work with unfamiliar components.

Ensuring a standard for servicing and repairing these vehicles is an important step to legitimizing the electric car in the minds of Americans.

Cities in the Crosshairs

With the first launch of electric vehicles months away, attention is turning to cities. Both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are set to hit showrooms this year. But it's clear that automakers are seeking early adopters in the beginning and will target markets most primed for the technology. Some cities will get EVs; others will have to wait.

At first glance, big urban centers like New York City would seem like ideal locations for the first rollout. Indeed, McKinsey and Company recently published a study saying that large urban centers could account for 16 percent of all electric vehicles by 2015. But some cities are more prepared than others.

Project Get Ready recently added two such cities to its growing roster: Providence, RI, and Orlando, Fla. Although absent from McKinsey's report, the cities are quickly preparing themselves to be viable markets for electric vehicles.

According to Nissan's Brian Verprauskus, senior manager for corporate planning and a Project Get Ready partner, ground-level enthusiasm is paramount. In choosing which cities would receive the electric Leaf through the company's DOE-funded deployment plan, the automaker conducted its fair share of research, primarily looking at cities with high sales of hybrid vehicles. But equally critical was an indication of real mobilization.

"Most important is friendly and cooperative utility and government," Verprauskus says. "There are places we would have loved to launch the Leaf, but there just wasn't enough response."

To find that cooperation, the Nissan team attended conferences, met with Clean Cities Coalitions and essentially networked. On Nissan's recent Zero Emissions Tour, Verprauskus had the opportunity to drum up support and demand.

The tour showcased the Nissan Leaf across 24 cities, solidifying already selected markets and planting seeds others. Nissan intends to deploy the Leaf in 12 to 15 cities in the first six months of 2011. Within a year of the launch, Verprauskus says, the car will be available in every state across the country.

Looking Ahead

This year promises to be pivotal for electric vehicles. As the cars roll off the blocks and into showrooms across the country, it will be interesting to see which cities take the lead and become viable markets.

Equally interesting will be the public's perception. After all, the majority of consumers and potential car buyers in the country are still fairly undereducated about this technology. Stakeholders, like those partnered with Project Get Ready, will benefit from a level of communication and collaboration greater than has historically been seen in the automobile industry.

Ben Holland is outreach and marketing coordinator for Rocky Mountain Institute.

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